Decolonising academic libraries: digital conference, Mercian Collaboration

Organised by Librarians from De Montfort University and University of Leicester the first digital  event for the Mercian collaboration (University libraries across the East and West Midlands region) offered a varied and thought-provoking programme centring on the reasons, practices and processes of Decolonising academic libraries.  Speakers and attendees presented and discussed the underlying ethos and challenges of this crucial movement.  

Speakers from De Montfort University, University of Leicester, Northumbria University, University of East London, University of Surrey, King’s College, London and Coventry University presented their experience and current practice in various approaches to decolonising their academic library. 

 Keith Nockels, University of Leicester, welcomed all to the meeting and spoke of the Decolonising group working at University of Leicester library. To acknowledge the current societal context Heena Karavadra read the BAME Network (Cilip) statement in response to the murder of George Floyd https://www.cilip.org.uk/page/statementGeorgeFloyd . This statement ends by acknowledging the key role that Library, information and knowledge professionals have in dismantling racism and asks for all to personally reflect and take action. This day provided space and inspiration for attendees to think about potential actions.  

Kaye Towlson (De Montfort University) presented the background and ongoing work of the Decolonising DMU project working to create an anti-racist university where all can succeed. She detailed various activities of the library work stream  such as “Kimberlin sessions” where speakers share good practice and facilitate discussion, plus “Read to debate” sessions, where attendees reflect on given readings around decolonising within the context of their practice and the student and staff experience. The talk focussed on the importance and impact of getting people talking, thinking and doing in order to progress the project and inviting all to work towards decolonising the University.  

Decolonising work and the staff /student experience – utilising the ‘inclusivity matrix’ as a way to visualise and reflect on module reading lists: Kelly Stockfield , Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria University presented details of research conducted initially at York St Johns University and then continued at University of Northumbria. Kelly and her colleagues developed an inclusivity matrix, delivered in the classroom as a visible expression of racial and gender bias in the researchers and knowledge base taught in the UK. Seeing the western, eurocentric bias, students and staff can endeavour to broaden their research and knowledge base.  The matrix was applied to a classroom setting in both Criminology and computing studies (with Biddy Casselden) at Northumbria University. Kelly also acknowledged the role of the library in helping researchers broaden their perspectives to a more global representation of knowledge. However, the “chicken and egg” situation of reading list driven library acquisitions was noted as a challenge. Some of this research is detailed in the following open access paper  https://www.britsoccrim.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Exploring-the-Criminology-Curriculum-PBCC19.pdf  by Stockdale and Sweeney (2019). 

In the afternoon the programme moved on to a series of lightning sessions enabling four presenters to share their work and perspective.  

Ian Clark, Academic Services Librarian for Psychology, University of East London presented a thought- provoking talk entitled White people need to do the work (not lead it). In this talk Ian offered several of the barriers put up by white people that either obscure the need for decolonising and anti-racist work, challenge assumptions or refute privileges. He gave a rebuttal to these challenges and offered a route to move away from these challenges and engage in active allyship. Ian supplied a link to a Zotero library of relevant material: https://www.zotero.org/groups/2148478/decolonisation/library and shared the link to Abdi, M. (2019) Advice for being an ally. BAMEed. Retrieved from: https://www.bameednetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/advice-5c-20for_38970569.pdf   

Liberating the Library through Staff-Student partnership. This work provides an example of co-creation, student curation, giving space to the breadth of the student cohort, paying heed to the lived experience of students of colour and moving away from the “single story”. University of Surrey student Oluwapelumi Durojaiye, worked in the Library as an Education Intern with Catherine Batson, Faculty Engagement Manager. They both shared their work and experience in this lightning talk. During her time in post, Oluwapelumi  Durojaiye was able to develop the student curator initiative where students were able to create virtual and physical displays in the library.  Students were invited to add to the library collection by making suggestions for purchase. To help with the development of decolonised reading lists Oluwapelumi developed an inclusive publishers index to enable staff to source a wider, more diverse body of knowledge and reading. The underpinning ethos of this work is to inspire curiosity, enable a more diverse choice and representation, to enable co-creation, to amplify hidden, less dominant voices bringing into focus and consideration the breadth of the lived experiences of students of colour.  

Michelle Bond, Academic Liaison Librarian for Media and the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Automotive Engineering spoke of “Starting points: Building your on-campus decolonisation network”. In this lightning talk Michelle offered a series of steps to deconstruct one’s own predominantly white, western mode of thinking, to challenge existing assumptions and knowledge of education and the position and role of libraries. These challenges and reflections can be facilitated through networking and engaging with reading and discussion. Michelle talked of the benefits of engaging with a cross campus staff book club composed of staff with a range of cultural backgrounds and experience.  Decolonising starts with oneself and one’s own mindset, these must be challenged and changed to make space for hidden voices, new ways of thinking. Michelle reminded us that this work takes time, it is work with a long history and to become involved is to become part of the continuum of people seeking decolonising. This is something that requires a deep-rooted change, not a quick fix. Michelle reinforced the need for safe spaces and diverse groups on campus to discuss decolonising actions and visions. She advised to not be afraid to get things wrong and learn from these mistakes alongside reading and discussion. Decolonising is a challenging and painful process. Those interested may wish to consult the following resources: A blog post from a student reflecting on an event: https://www.cusu.org/news/article/bame/Reflections-on-the-BHM-Panel-Talk/   and Gus John BELMAS lecture 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kD-s_UDRftM  

  The final lightning talk of the day was delivered by Vanessa Farrier, Head of Education and Curriculum, King’s College, London who spoke of Maintaining a decolonial approach to teaching collections in crisis mode! Vanessa raised the question of how can we pay attention and facilitate decolonising in an environment driven by the COVID crisis? A crisis which demands all acquisitions are digital (where possible) and where the acquisition of library stock is more process than subject collection driven. Vanessa spoke of enshrining the concepts and actions of decolonising within Librarian job descriptions, a phenomenon enabled by the recent restructure of Librarian posts at King’s. This enables Librarians to fight against colonial structures of knowledge and for a diverse and inclusive collection thus bringing to the fore previously hidden voices. It is essential that reading lists are seen as tools of pedagogy and not merely a process driven means of access to relevant information. Librarians must advocate for this perspective and pedagogic application. Librarians must be involved in both the process of the curriculum and the development of content for the curriculum to enable decolonising to happen. The library must engage with this process, be involved with quality assurance, curriculum and collection development to ensure non- western, non-white voices are available and heard both inside and outside of the classroom. Decolonising is seen as vital to student experience and success. 

Represent: The last presentation of the day was by Heena Karavadra, Academic Librarian (College of Science, Engineering and Life Sciences) who spoke of her work and experience at the University of Leicester with particular focus on building a representative leisure reading collection for all of the student community.  Heena’s work grew from the “Read at Leicester” initiative whereby group selected texts were given to all first year undergraduate students as part of “Freshers’” welcome activities. Opportunities to share and engage with discussion around selected texts were offered through the year and one particular text, The good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla also tied in with some common modules within University programmes.  Heena has liaised with the University of Leicester student Union’s (LSU) equality and liberation champions who worked on a project to create a liberation wall celebrating those less represented students who worked with LSU to help shape the organisation and service that it offers today. Growing from this work a LSU” liberation library” book swap developed leading Heena to ask the question could such a diverse and inclusive leisure reading collection be offered in the library. Despite the hurdle of zero funding, Heena was able to identify and pull together a diverse range of existing stock to form an inclusive liberated leisure reading library representing the diverse University community. The resulting collection has been used by students before lockdown and Heena has been able to secure funding from the University to grow the collection further. 

Heena ran a zine workshop with Leicester University students exploring the theme of representation.  At the workshop she invited attendees to contribute to a padlet wall detailing their considerations and ruminations of why representation is important. Themes such as belonging, empowerment, avoiding the single story, encouraging empathy with people “not like you”, demonstrating all are an inclusive and equal part of the university, show other ways of understanding the world and students need to see role models they can relate and aspire to, were listed.  All good and inspiring reasons for diversity in all collections and to enable students to connect with the curriculum and engender a sense of belonging and inclusion. https://padlet.com/heenakaravadra/r7v0570xps8288bf  

In summing up the day attendees were invited to contribute to another padlet wall noting each of the following: 

A reflection on the day 

A take home point 

An action that they will accomplish or instigate on return to the day job.  

This padlet wall will be re-circulated to all attendees the week beginning 27th July to act as a reminder of decolonising action and a tool of reflection and inspiration.  https://padlet.com/heenakaravadra/lm41lcj965j1pqy6  

Despite the digital challenge the Mercian Collaboration “Decolonising academic Libraries” event went smoothly, was well attended by Librarians from across the Mercian region and beyond.  Thank you to all the presenters for such an informative and inspiring day, advocating the need and some means for decolonising academic libraries and providing a call to action change in academia to benefit the whole community. Thank you to all the attendees for heeding the call.  

Kaye Towlson, Academic Team Manager (Information Literacy) and Fair Outcomes Champion (Decolonising DMU), De Montfort University, Leicester